The summer after my father left, my brother quit high school and hitched his way to Scandinavia. My sisters and I continued with high school, all ambitious, high-strung overachievers. We were cheerleaders and athletes and student body presidents. We starred in the school plays. Our mother went to work as a typist at Cornell University. She typed very fast, almost 100 words a minute. She would come home from work and lie down on her bed, still wearing her coat, and then rise with a sigh in the dusky half-light to make dinner. After years of cooking and baking large meals of meats, preserves, breads, and pies for her big family, she stepped down to hot dogs served from a pot on the stove and buns pulled out of plastic sleeves. All spring and summer, she sat out on the front stoop in the warm evenings, listening to the peepers on the creek, smoking cigarettes, and playing the same Three Dog Night song, “Out in the Country,” over and over on our record player.
One night about a year after my father left, Joan—now his second wife—called. “Where is that bastard?” she asked. My mother said she didn’t know.
My father surfaced again several months later. He had taken up with Jeanne, a family friend. Buck and Jeanne started moving around. They lived on Long Island while he worked construction. They lived in Vermont and Connecticut, where he found jobs on farms; sometimes he trimmed trees. Then they moved to Port Allegheny, in North Central Pennsylvania. Jeanne was sick for a long time and then died of emphysema. My brother told me she smoked right next to her oxygen canister. He thought she might blow herself up.
When I went to college, my mother quit typing and enrolled at Cornell as a full-time undergraduate. After she got her bachelor’s degree, she went on to get an MFA at Cornell. She taught at Cornell and later Ithaca College.
Our old red barn fell down, a victim of decay caused by a hole in the roof that my father had always been meaning to patch. The absent barn left an enormous empty space next to the house that I couldn’t look at. An elderly neighbor who lived up the road left his house to my mother when he died, and she moved away from the empty farm to that little place, which is lovely and ghost-free.
Like the man himself, my feelings about my father seemed to wander. There were the years when I avoided thinking about him because remembering him made me too sad. There were the times when I actively fled from the memory of him because I was worried that his hard luck would rub off on me. There were the men I avoided because they reminded me of him, and the men I wanted because they reminded me of him.
Buck did what he did best. He kept moving. The marriages increased in frequency, if not duration. After my mother, Jane, he married Joan, then Jeanne. After Jeanne died, he married Jean. That one didn’t last long—her children intervened.
Then came Pat. Pat worked at the bottle factory in Port Allegheny and retired on disability.
My father had become the many-married protagonist of a George Jones song. Remember the old joke about country songs—that if you play them backward all the hard luck reverses itself and the dog comes back? Sometimes I fantasize about playing my father’s song backward. The wives fall away, one by one. The barn rights itself, our possessions return to their rightful owners, the cows back themselves off of the cattle trucks and into their assigned stanchions, and I look out the window and see my father striding across a field, going places.
We Hear You!